Apr 18, 2023 4:00 PM
Serving as the final matchup of the Intercollegiate/Interscholastic (I/I) season, the Division I Men’s National Intercollegiate Championship came to an explosive close on Saturday, April 15 at Virginia Polo Inc. in Charlottesville, Virginia. A championship rematch of last year’s final, defending champions University of Virginia (Vlad Tarashansky, Jim Deal, Parker Pearce, Makhdum “Mak” Mourad Shah) battled 2022 runners-up University of North Texas (Vance Miller III, John Dencker, Andrew Scott, Vaughn Miller Jr., Niklaus Felhaber).
University of North Texas (UNT) created an early lead and used field goal accuracy and physicality to maintain the advantage. UNT ahead by six moving into the final chukker, the University of Virginia (UVA) attempted to mount a comeback, but it was too little too late. As the final horn sounded, UNT clung to a comfortable 14-9 lead, securing their first Division I National Intercollegiate Championship.
“It’s the culmination of a lifelong effort of my family in I/I polo. We’ve played since I was eight years old with my brother and my dad. We won the National Interscholastic Championship, I won the U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship, and this is my last year in intercollegiate and I wanted to sweep all three. It was my last chance, and we were able to complete it.” – University of North Texas' Vaughn Miller Jr.
Headed into the competition, both UVA and UNT advanced directly to the semifinals based on their season records and seeding. UVA met Cornell and handily defeated the “Big Red” 18-7, while UNT also performed dominantly against Texas A&M, up-ending their Texas counterpart 20-8.
Discussing UNT’s strategy against their opponent, Scott commented, “We’ve watched UVA play a few times. We wanted to be really physical with them because they’re really smart players.” Vaughn Miller Jr. added, “They’re well coached by Lou Lopez and they’re in their home arena with their horses, so they’re going to be well organized and disciplined. We knew we had to overcome that with talent, speed and quickness.” Dencker also noted UVA’s playing style. “They’re very disciplined, on the boards especially. They play very classic arena polo, to the most accentuated extent possible. They play one after the other, four horse lengths apart, they lock on the board every chance they get.”
As the final began UNT had a lucky break, a ball deflecting off UVA into goal for the first score of the day. With 10 seconds left in the chukker, a successful Penalty 2 from Vaughn Miller Jr. put UNT ahead 2-0. In the second chukker, the teams traded goals, with two penalty conversions from Pearce matching a penalty from Vaughn Miller Jr. and a field goal from Scott. The score now 4-2 entering the third, UVA and UNT once again kept pace, with Vaughn Miller Jr. and Pearce both finding the goal to end the half with UNT leading 5-3.
Speaking to UNT’s adjustments throughout the game, Scott remarked, “I think we needed to relax. We needed to slow down. The first couple of chukkers we were a little flustered. We just kept grinding, shut the ball down and let UVA overcommit on some things and give the ball to Vaughn. That kid’s amazing. He’s so good with the ball, let him work his magic and back him up as best we can.”
Explaining the team dynamic with five players and what it was like rotating in and out of the game, Dencker shared, “It’s hard getting in there when I was cold, but it gave some of the other guys a good rest when they needed it, or a chance to clear their head. Andrew was playing good when I went in for him, but when I came back out, he played outstanding. He got that little break, cleared his head, came back and balled out to the best of his ability.”
After the break, scores from Vaughn Miller Jr. and Vance Miller along with a two-pointer from Scott were met with two goals from Tarashansky and a goal from Deal. Leading 9-6 and carrying the momentum from the fourth chukker, UNT once again combined for four total goals. Strong defense from UNT limited UVA to just one score from Tarashansky to end the fifth chukker 13-7 in favor of UNT. In the final chukker, UVA delivered a strong defensive effort to largely keep UNT off the board. A late two-pointer from Pearce created momentum for the Virginian team, but there was not enough time left to see the comeback come to fruition. As time expired, UNT held a 14-9 advantage, securing their first ever Division I Men’s National Intercollegiate Championship title.
“For 10 years, we’ve been working for this. It wasn’t overnight” – University of North Texas' Vaughn Miller Jr.
Elated with the long-awaited win, Vaughn Miller Jr. beamed, “It’s the culmination of a lifelong effort of my family in I/I polo. We’ve played since I was eight years old with my brother and my dad. We won the National Interscholastic Championship, I won the U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship, and this is my last year in intercollegiate and I wanted to sweep all three. It was my last chance, and we were able to complete it. This meant everything to me. For 10 years, we’ve been working for this. It wasn’t overnight. It went from losing the preliminaries to winning the preliminaries, losing Regionals to winning Regionals, then Nationals until we got here.”
The win was especially sweet for both Vaughn Miller Jr. and Scott, as they were two of the original players on the first UNT team in 2018. Vaughn Miller Jr. commented, “My dad and I started UNT and Andrew Scott was one of the original players on the first team five years ago before COVID hit. He left and came back to the team. So, the two founding members Andrew and I were able to win a championship in our senior year.”
An even more triumphant victory given last year’s runner-up ending for UNT, Dencker shared, “It feels good after last year. Last year was a little rough, to get all the way to the end and get runner-up, it didn’t really sit very well. It was a good game last year. I couldn’t be happier to finally win something for UNT.”
Detailing the role of horses in the game, Vaughn Miller discussed what it was like to have the UNT string comprised entirely of his personal horses. “It was great. Pineapple Express, in the fifth chukker, is a great mare. Pineapple Express helped us turn around the game. I think I scored two goals in the chukker on her and she got to every ball first. She was the reason that we blew the game open.” A versatile horse, Pineapple Express also played in the 18-goal Butler Handicap at Port Mayaca Polo Club (Okeechobee, Florida) just last week.
All-Stars were presented to Vaughn Miller Jr., Andrew Scott, Parker Pearce and Jim Deal. The Connie Upchurch Memorial Sportsmanship Award was presented to Andrew Scott, marking the second time that he has been awarded that recognition. The David Wenning Memorial Horsemanship Award was presented to Vlad Tarashansky.
Best Playing Pony honors were awarded to Sativa from UVA’s string, and the UVA string, including Dumptruck, Sativa, Viuda, Nemo, Minnie, Sapa, Mango and Glizzy, also took home Best Playing String.
Scott praised the horsepower on both sides, sharing, “The Millers mounted me up really nicely with Homega and Guillermita, those horses played amazing. I can’t imagine any other horses I’d want to play in the tournament. The UVA horses, I was very impressed with as well. It was nice to play theirs.”
In a similar vein, Dencker noted, “I didn’t actually play any of our horses because of the split string. I played Nemo from UVA. I’ve played that horse a few times, that’s a great horse. He’s a really good horse, I gave him a nine. He’s a good boy!”
The ideal way to end the season, Vaughn Miller Jr. and Scott wrap up their I/I eligibility. The end of an era for the two, UNT will live on through current members Vance Miller, Dencker and Felhaber. Detailing how they plan to celebrate the victory, Felhaber commented, “We’re going to have a nice dinner, everybody’s going to settle down a little. Some of us are leaving, but we’ve got these horses to take care of. We’ve got a lot going back to Texas, so right now, it’s all hands on deck with the horses and making sure they’re taken care of first before we do anything.”
All photos courtesy of ©Oana Moore.
Effective Date: Saturday, May 16, 2020
The suspension of USPA Tournaments and Events will be lifted for USPA Member Clubs in locales where hosting polo matches and tournaments is permitted under applicable state and local laws, executive orders and similar decrees. The USPA Member Clubs in these locales are encouraged to follow all such requirements of their state and local authorities with respect to polo operations. In addition, we also encourage all USPA Member Clubs to take the precautions recommended by the CDC. We are preparing a detailed list of best practices for USPA Member Clubs as they return to hosting USPA Tournaments and Events and plan to circulate these guidelines within the next week. We will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation closely and will notify you if we determine a different course of action is necessary.Read More